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Could a minority government deal be done?

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 28 April 2010

As the opinion polls and betting markets suggest the 2010 General Election will result in a hung parliament, independent political analyst Greg Callus analyses for Channel 4 News the potential scenarios the parties face.

Leaders (Getty)

The Liberal Democrat surge has holed Labour and Tory plans for an overall majority beneath the water line, and talk is of coalitions and horse-trading.

So what happens on 7 May if no party has an overall majority in the Commons? It's worth looking through the running order of options available, and trying to predict when the music will stop and who will be sat in which chair when it does.

The following assumes, firstly, that no party has an overall majority (once Sinn Fein's abstention from the chamber is taken into account), and that in spite of the possibility that they could top the polls in the popular vote, that the Lib Dems will not win enough votes to have the most seats in the new Commons (they would need between 37-40 per cent to be sure of that happening).

Given that the monarch chooses a prime minister on their ability to command a majority of MPs, once the PM has tried and failed, the order in which other party leaders are invited to try and form a government is likely to be the order of seats won – the popular vote may confer legitimacy, but its role will be limited to how the party leaders negotiate, not whom the Queen chooses first.

Gordon Brown will still be the prime minister, and unless he resigns or is sacked, he still has the first opportunity to assemble a government that can pass 'money bills' and win a vote of no confidence. Should he fail, Her Majesty can choose another person (any MP) whom she believes can command the support of a majority of MPs.

Labour's options
The following possibilities are based on a chronological order of preference, not on likelihood of occurring.

(a) Even if Labour does not win an overall majority, it might come close. The easiest coalition (or at least working alliance) would involve not having to make concessions to the other big parties. Should Labour be within, say, 5-15 seats of an overall majority then it could plausibly make a deal with the minor parties: the SDLP from Northern Ireland already take the Labour whip, and Brown would hope to be able to win over Plaid Cymru or the SNP to get him over the finishing line. Labour has already been in coalition with Plaid in the Welsh Assembly, though whether the SNP would prop up their compatriot Brown is less clear.

If very close, the handful of Independents (like Dai Davies of Blaenau Gwent) or the Green Party leader Caroline Lucas (if elected) might offer enough support to keep Brown in Number 10. Remember too, it was only thanks to the support of the Northern Irish DUP politicians in the Commons that Brown was able to pass 42-days' detention. The price of this coalition might be cheaper, though doing such a deal with parties of the Celtic Nations gives the West Lothian Question a new and more-powerful significance.

(b) It may be that Labour is not close enough that it can forgo the support of the Liberal Democrats to stay in power. Nick Clegg has made clear that if Labour fall to third place in the popular vote, then he will not allow it to keep Downing Street, so to form a Lib-Lab coalition and keep Brown in a job, will mean coming second in the popular vote at least.

(c) But if Labour fall to third in the popular vote, it must either enter coalition with the Lib Dems with Nick Clegg taking 10 Downing Street and Labour being the larger-but-junior partner in coalition, or find a new leader who will not be "squatting" in Number 10 having led the government to disastrous defeat. Alan Johnson is back in the headlines, given his past enthusiasm for proportional representation – allowing electoral reform, whilst not breaking Clegg's promise by keeping Brown at the helm could be an attractive prospect for both parties, although the ability of the Labour party to depose Brown has been less-than-evident this past year.

Conservatives' options
(d) Should no Labour leader be able to command the confidence of a majority, then likely David Cameron (as leader of probably-at-least-the-second largest party) would be given a chance to form a government. Again, if the Conservatives were only a little way short (and the recent surge to the Lib Dems may so decimate Labour that the Tories do better in target seats than expected), they could try to mimic the final years of John Major's government, when the Conservative PM was forced to rely on the votes of Ulster Unionists. Now the UUP are in formal electoral alliance, one presumes their votes could be guaranteed, so Cameron would probably turn his attention again to the DUP, Plaid Cymru and the SNP.

(e) If the Conservatives were unable to strike such a deal, or so far short of an overall majority that they needed Lib Dem support, the option would become an alliance or coalition with Nick Clegg's party. Guido Fawkes was amongst the first to suggest that this might be the most plausible outcome – the social and economic liberalism in both parties (the Cameroons and Orange Bookers) could be made to match (with some limits on Lib Dem tax policy recommendations), so the difficulties would be Europe (where they are utterly divergent), and Cameron's reluctance to negotiate on Trident renewal, criminal justice and sentencing, and electoral reform (the Tories are squarely in favour of First Past The Post).

This option could play out a number of ways – formal coalition, or a Cameron minority government given limited tacit support to pass a budget, but looking to call a general election that would perhaps give them an overall majority some time later in 2010, or in early 2011.

(f) The final option would be if both Labour and the Conservatives were too far from an overall majority to form a government without the Liberal Democrats, and that the Lib Dems (coming either first or second in the popular vote, though still third in number of seats) decide not to allow either to form a functioning government. Instead of an immediate election, it might be possible for Nick Clegg to offer to form a government, with either Labour or the Conservatives as the junior partner. This seems less plausible, though having won the popular vote, the impact in a second General Election of 2010 could well see Lib Dem seats increase substantially, being seen as one of the two main parties.

Party demands
So what are the key priorities for each party, other than holding power itself? What lines might they draw in the sand, preventing coalition?

The Lib Dems want electoral reform first and foremost – it is the key to their being in power outside of a 2010 Hung Parliament, and will likely be the basis of any formal coalition deal.

Though they prefer Single Transferable Vote (STV), they would likely settle for Alternative Vote Plus (AV+) as I argued last week. Lords reform, tax reform, and some movement on civil liberties (the National ID card scheme, or the Digital Economy Act) would give visible evidence of their policy impact. Trident cancellation and a commitment to joining the Euro might also be on the long-list.

Labour is prepared to offer Lords reform and AV+. They might budge on some tax and spend policies, though flagships of anti-terror and defence might be a step too far. The Conservatives, as mentioned, could also adopt much of the policy that the Lib Dems propose, but Cameron has been scathing about forgoing prison sentences of less than six months, and policies like the mansion tax would surely never make a Conservative budget.

The main redlines for the Tories would be Trident, European integration, and it remains to be seen how flexible they could be on electoral reform that could see them never again win an overall majority.

Northern Irish parties will have their own prices – some related to the administration in Stormont, but also relating to investment in the province.

The Scottish Nationalists would likely want some guarantee of a referendum on independence at the time of their choosing, and the Welsh Nationalists would likely want greater powers for the Senedd in Cardiff. The latter would require little trouble for the major parties, but the former could be difficult for both the Conservative & Unionist Party (its proper name), and a Labour Party that relies on Scotland for many of its MPs.

Finally, is there any chance of a Labour-Conservative coalition? It seems almost unthinkable, and it probably is in 2010. For those two historic enemies to share the green benches on the right of the speaker would likely take several election cycles in which the two-party system of the post-WWII era was clearly over.

It may be possible down the line, but for now, David Cameron will not keep Gordon Brown, or any other senior Labour politician, at the cabinet table if he can possibly help it. Unless either Labour or the Conservatives are within spitting distance of an overall majority, the king-maker in the next parliament will almost certainly be Nick Clegg.

Greg Callus is the deputy editor of and co-author of the Guide to the 2010 election.

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